Four Oddball Alien Planets Get Fingerprinted

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Four Oddball Alien Planets Get Fingerprinted
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Image of the HR8799 planets with starlight optically suppressed and data processing conducted to remove …

Scientists have collected the startling chemical fingerprints of four huge alien planets, successfully sifting through the blinding light of their parent star.

The atmospheric composition of the four warm, cloud-covered alien planets orbiting the star HR 8799 — a star five times brighter than our sun that lies 128 light-years away from Earth — took researchers by surprise.

"These warm, red planets are unlike any other known object in our universe," astronomer Ben Oppenheimer, chair of the astrophysics department at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, said in a statement. "All four planets have different spectra, and all four are peculiar. The theorists have a lot of work to do now." [The Four Giant Exoplanets of Star 8799 (Infographic)]

The four planets are all more massive than Jupiter. At about 1340 degrees Fahrenheit (727 degrees Celsius), they're considered just lukewarm as far as celestial bodies go. With such temperatures, astronomers would expect to see ammonia and methane coexisting in their atmospheres.

The scientists, however, found that the four worlds' atmospheres had either methane or ammonia, not combinations of the two. The planets were also redder than the scientists had expected, which they suspect could be due to their patchy cloud cover.

The team filtered out the brilliant light of HR 8799 using an advanced imaging system at the Palomar Observatory in California called Project 1640. The technique could be a landmark in the study of worlds beyond our own solar system, researchers say.

"In the 19th century it was thought impossible to know the composition of stars, but the invention of astronomical spectroscopy has revealed detailed information about nearby stars and distant galaxies," Charles Beichman, executive director of the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, said in a statement.

"Now, with Project 1640, we are beginning to turn this tool to the investigation of neighboring exoplanets to learn about the composition, temperature, and other characteristics of their atmospheres," he added.

Spectra can reveal the makeup of the atmospheres of exoplanets because chemicals like carbon dioxide and methane each absorb light in a different way and accordingly leave their own unique signature in the spectrum.

"Astronomers are now able to monitor cloudy skies on extrasolar planets, and for the first time, they have made such observations for four planets at once," Maria Womack, program director for the division of astronomical sciences at the National Science Foundation, said in a statement. "This new ability enables astronomers to now make comparisons as they track the atmospheres, and maybe even weather patterns, on the planets."

The research, funded in part by the National Science Foundation, is set to appear in The Astrophysical Journal.

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